Scripture readings: Luke 15:1-10, 1 Tim 1:12-17
You may not realize it, but there is a party going on. Yes, in this very sanctuary, a party, a celebration. Do you see it? You have to look closely. There aren’t balloons or streamers, which my two-year-old would consider a prerequisite, but there are beautiful banners, shiny pipes, and luminous lanterns. We’ve raised our voices together in song, greeted each other in peace, we’ve spoken true and joyful words, and we didn’t even have to drink any loosening-up beverages to do it.
Okay, many of you are probably thinking, “This is a party?” Yes, our weekly worship together is meant to be a celebration–every Sunday a feast of our Risen Lord. Now, I’ll admit that Presbyterians tend to like their rejoicing “decently and in order.” But maybe it’s a good thing you didn’t realize it. If you did, and you are anything like me, you might have gotten nervous. You might have wondered, “Will I wear the right thing?” Or “Will I fit in?” Come to think of it, some of us probably did think those things before coming on into church this morning anyway.
It’s interesting that the word “party” has at least two major definitions. A party can be a social gathering of invited guests, intended for festivity and fun. Or a party can be a group of people with common opinions banding together to assert an agenda—like a political party. Which kind of party is church intended to be? A like-minded pursuit of purpose, or an astonishing opportunity for amazing encounters? How we respond to our invitation depends on what kind of party we perceive it to be. And the tone of any party is usually set by the host.
In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus is hosting. Though it is the kind of party where everyone is welcomed by name, and Jesus is the kind of host who goes out of his way to make connections between people, only some of his guests are having a great time. The text says, “Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.” Caught up in fascinating conversations, intrigued and inspired by their host, they felt more comfortable being their regular-old-selves than they’d ever felt at a party in their lives.
But some other guests were unhappy. Now, the Pharisees and scribes tend to get painted as “bad guys,” but they are really careful, caring people we’d like and admire. People who care deeply about God and society. People who are willing to work meticulously in respect and obedience to God’s commandments. As Barbara Brown Taylor describes them,
“They are not uninterested in sinners, but they believe that the best way to help them is to hold up a high standard, inviting them to achieve it and letting them know where they fall short, until finally they are challenged to become the best they can be. Some people have what it takes and some, tragically, do not, but there is nothing to be gained by mixing the two.”[i]
The text says, “The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling…” Maybe they thought they’d been invited to a different kind of party, for purposeful organizing with like-minded people who want to do something useful about the world’s troubles. They’ve been spending time around Jesus because they thought that he cared, in the same way they do, about justice and righteousness. Yet, Jesus has invited a bunch of folks no one could imagine doing anything useful. In fact, some of these folks cause the very troubles that needed to be addressed!
Now the words “sinners” and “tax-collectors” have lost resonance in our time, so we might wonder why they seem so insulted by the company Jesus is keeping. Borrowing again from Barbara Brown Taylor, we get a clearer picture. She writes,
“…I imagine Jesus down at the plasma bank on Boulevard, standing in line with the hungover men waiting to sell their blood, or maybe down at the city jail shooting the breeze with the bail bondsmen who cruise the place like vultures. I imagine him at the Majestic Diner on Ponce de Leon with a crack dealer, a car thief, a prostitute with AIDs, buying them all cheese omelets, when I come in with the sixth-grade confirmation class and sit down a couple of booths away.” [ii]
Now the word “sinner” in Greek literally means “missing the mark.”These are folks who have missed the mark of conventional morality, gathered here as if they belonged with on-target people. Was the host going to do anything about them? No! Jesus seemed to enjoy their company, smiling at them, saying their names, asking questions to get them swapping stories. He wasn’t kicking them out, and he wasn’t even asking them to change their ways. In his willingness to party with them, Jesus seems to be condoning their misbehavior! “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they say to themselves with disgust.
Now, Jesus does care about justice and righteousness, not only for the tax-collectors and sinners, but also for the scribes and Pharisees. And as the host of the party, Jesus is naturally concerned when some guests refuse to talk to others. Knowing and loving all of his guests, Jesus wants them to know and love each other. So he goes over to them and tells them a couple of stories.
He begins simply enough. A shepherd has one hundred sheep, but one is missing. One has missed the marks which point the way home amidst the rocks and hills of the journey. So what does the shepherd do? Leaves the ninety-nine in the wilderness to go after the lost one until he finds it.
Jesus asks his careful, caring listeners, “Which one of you would not do the same?” His words seem to assume his listeners will agree with the shepherd’s behavior. Certainly they must recognize in the shepherd some of their own meticulous attention to detail. But honestly? The Pharisees and scribes have to be thinking, “Is he crazy?” Just like any one of us, schooled in bottom-line economics and tit-for-tat justice by our world. Why on earth would you leave ninety-nine healthy sheep in the wilderness—a place of pitfalls and predators—to seek a lost one, who wandered off of its own volition and could be lying somewhere dead anyway?
Yet the shepherd in Jesus’ story does not count the cost, not in time, or energy, or effort. And he does not blame the sheep for its lost-ness. He just searches carefully until he finds it. And then, he’s not done. Laying it on his shoulders, he rejoices. Does he do a little dance in the wilderness, a little jig as he carries the lost one home? It seems a little excessive. And you’d think that would be the end, and he’d get on with managing his flock in a sane way. But, once he’s home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, because rejoicing on his own is not enough. Let us come together and rejoice, for this little one who was lost has been found.
Then there’s the woman. Again Jesus tells the story as if every woman who loses one little coin would do the same thing. The woman lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and searches carefully until it is found. Meticulous, laborious housework in search of one little coin. But getting it back in her hands, what does she do? She, too, calls the friends and neighbors and throws a party. In the ancient world, “rejoicing” implies eating, and the irony is that she will probably spend more money on the party than her ten coins are worth!
The searching shepherd and the sweeping woman do not make sense in our normal way of perceiving things. Such extravagant effort seems nonsensical to us, and such reckless rejoicing seems misplaced. Where is the justice in unconditional forgiveness and welcome? Of course these are more than just good stories—they are parables. They sound like harmless tales about ordinary people, but they turn out to be teachings which invite listeners to an entirely new perception of reality! Jesus wants to help all of us discontented guests loosen up and enjoy the festivities, reorienting us to the character of rejoicing at that ultimate party, ongoing in the kingdom of heaven.
That party, the cosmic party to surpass all others, reflects the character of its host, who turns out to be utterly different than we expect. Rather than a somber judge deciding who is in and who is out, our host turns out to be more like a searching shepherd, a sweeping woman—a loving parent rejoicing when the lost one comes home. It is a rejoicing which celebrates the presence of sinners and tax-collectors, scribes and Pharisees alike. It is a rejoicing which celebrates the justice that none of us gets what we think we “deserve,” but all are welcomed in forgiveness and joy. A celebration which is not complete until every last one who has been invited shows up and joins in, it is a rejoicing in which categories like the ninety-nine and the onecease to matter in the community which becomes the Beloved People of God.[iii]
And who has been invited? All of us, each and every one of us. Now someone I know once observed that “when ‘everyone’ is invited, they aren’t really inviting me.” But the invitation to this party is both all-inclusive and personal. We are invited by the One who has found us, who intimately knows the crannies and pitfalls where we tend to get stuck or go missing. We are invited, not because of our credentials or our lack thereof, what we look like or what we wear. We are invited for no other reason than the gracious desire and extravagant character of our host.
And who is our host in the cosmic party to end all parties? Our host is the Triune God, whose character is love itself, Heartbroken over the loss of even the most misguided and least of his children, God is willing to go to any lengths and pay any price to restore the broken relationship. Our God sends out his very self as an invitation, sparing no expense of time or energy, going as far as necessary, all the way through death on the cross to resurrection, so that we who were lost might be found and carried home to a joyous reunion.
So…what do you think happened after Jesus told those stories at that party? What will happen after we hear them again? Will you who so often feel lost, lonely, and far from home know yourself welcomed in, just as you are? Will you who’ve forgotten what it’s like to be lost remember how to celebrate with joy, recognizing God’s unrelenting grace?
There’s a party going on, here and now. It is a just a hint of the exuberant joy in the kingdom of heaven over every sinner who repents—Over every single one of us, as we respond to God’s forgiving love with our own rejoicing. And it is a foretaste of the enduring joy to come, when the kingdom comes in fullness, and there are no longer dark corners or pitfalls in the everlasting presence of God.
So don’t delay and don’t worry: Come as you are. Shout and sing! Share your story. All friends and neighbors, all sinners and Pharisees, every one of us is welcome, loved, and longed for, and the party won’t be complete until you arrive.
All glory to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Lost and Found Department,” in The Preaching Life, Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1993, 149.
[ii] Ibid, 148.
[iii] G. Penny Nixon, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4, 73.